What happened to Syria’s popular revolution? With Syrian strongman Bashar Assad clinging to power, an estimated 200,000 Syrians dead, and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) carving up entire swathes of the Old Middle East, it is hard to recall that it all started in Spring 2011 with peaceful protests for reform. Now into its fourth year, spillover from the Syrian crisis threatens the entire region. In response, the White House, in addition to recent airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, has pledged to increase assistance to Syria’s “moderate” rebel forces. The challenge may soon lie in actually finding any matching this criterion.

Since its earliest days, opposition groups in exile have vied for the uprising’s leadership while attempting to project to the West an acceptable alternative to the Assad regime.

Headquartered primarily in Istanbul hotels, the most prominent – the Syrian National Council and its successor the Syrian Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (SOC) – have largely succeeded in presenting a respectable face to want-to-be-supportive Western diplomats. But despite the abhorrent behavior of the Assad regime on the one hand (read: barrel bombs on schools and chemical weapons on city streets), and ISIS’s slaughter of minorities and journalists, on the other, these aspiring leaders of Syria have struggled to inspire fellow countrymen with a compelling post-Assad vision for their country.

Whereas a loose “anti-Assad” ideology may have been sufficient in the early days to mobilize much of the Syrian street and garner international support, this is no longer the case; not with ISIS’s worldview posing a threat not only to Assad but also Western interests across the region, and the former portraying himself at home and abroad as the lesser of two evils. In what is ultimately a struggle for political primacy, the question of core ideology is critical, for among the causes of the Islamist ascendancy and Assad’s survival should be added the lack of a defining, moderate, political narrative, one that could effectively compete against regime and extremist propaganda, maintain opposition morale, boost foreign confidence and support and provide the estimated 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced and 2.5 million in Lebanese, Jordanian and Turkish refugee camps with a rationale for ongoing sacrifice.

The consequences of this political-ideological deficit are evident in parts of Syria freed from regime control, where a dwindling number of moderate rebel commanders, confronted with the burden of governance, find themselves equipped with little more than the example of the Assad regime’s own governing style for reference; thus presenting easy prey for ISIS with its structured political program of religious courts and clerical oppression.

THAT SYRIA’S surviving moderate rebels lack the knowledge or capacity to advance a positive political agenda on the ground is a result of life under a half-century of authoritarianism.

But rather than aiding them in filling the political vacuum, Syria’s would-be leaders in exile grow more disconnected by the day with internal dynamics: in particular, that after several years of fighting new grassroots leaders have emerged, arguably less sophisticated in realpolitik but whose legitimacy and authority come from their having remained inside the country, aided by the barrel of a gun.

As the White House now contemplates military assistance to these very same rebel commanders, its policy approach, to be successful, must take into account realities on the ground. Notably, in areas not yet claimed by ISIS or at risk of recapture by the regime, it is hitherto moderate commanders, rather than distant exiles, that are directly implicating the prospects of an acceptable outcome. And of equal, if not greater, importance to their current equipment needs, over the long term, is the ideological-political battle in which Assad and ISIS have thus far demonstrated greater competence; and for which there is no practical Istanbul-based solution at present.

There may not be time for the White House to factor into emerging strategies the full spectrum of Syria’s needs while attempting to contain ISIS’s regional rampage. Nevertheless, to forestall a complete collapse of the Syrian moderate front and to ultimately defeat the Islamist threat the political requirements of those confronting the programs of the regime and ISIS on the ground – where it matters most – must be addressed. Into the fourth year of the Syrian crisis not only Syria’s future political prospects but also Western interests across the region are in the balance.

The author, a regional development consultant, served as a US Department of State senior governance adviser in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2009- 2010 and as senior adviser in the department’s Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative during the administration of George W. Bush.

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